According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a respiratory illness “first detected in Wuhan City, China [is] caused by a novel (new) coronavirus (named ‘2019-nCov’).” The virus, known as “coronavirus,” has spread to multiple countries. A Chinese and a Chinese American student discuss the narratives surrounding the virus.
Kathy Ou — “Being Chinese is not the easiest thing these days”
“Are you sick?”
It was the second thing my professor said to me when I first walked into the classroom after we greeted each other at the beginning of this semester. I was just about to sit down.
I assumed he asked the question because of the current coronavirus outbreak in China that has sickened more than 30,000. I believed he asked it out of goodwill, despite how it could be easily interpreted as a micro-aggression. I also understood the question did have a legitimate reason and appreciated he cared to ask about me before throwing on — or asking me to throw on — a face mask. Being Chinese, and the constant questioning and assumptions it entails, is not the easiest thing these days. The conversations around the coronavirus has often been hostile, putting salt on the wounds of those suffering.
Ever since the viral outbreak in December 2019, reportedly from a Wuhan wet market, the number of reported cases has continued increasing as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a global health emergency Jan. 30. As the number of afflicted people rose, the number of incidences of racism against the Asian — and particularly Chinese — population surged as well. In Newcastle, England, a Chinese student was spat on by a stranger walking on the streets unprovoked back to her dormitory, supposedly because she was not wearing a mask. Asian American drivers from Uber and Lyft were increasingly canceled by customers. University of California, Berkeley called xenophobia against the Asian population a “common reaction” during the viral outbreak. Newspapers headlined the epidemic “China Virus.” Restaurants posted on their shop windows signs reading “no Chinese allowed.” Apparently, as Chinese, we are the walking dead who eat bats.
All of these recall archaic tropes about Chinese people. At the end of the 19th century, trachoma was portrayed by American authorities as an “Oriental” disease to exclude Asian immigrants. Simultaneously, the colonial powers’ conquest of China gave rise to development of the phrase “sick man of Asia,” referring to the nation’s backwardness and inability to defend itself. This notion was recently revitalized in a Wall Street Journal article titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” and its attribution of the epidemic to “a communist coronavirus.” Furthermore, the coverage of the coronavirus reinforces Western stereotypes of Chinese people — and more broadly, Asians — as people who eat “strange” and “exotic” foods like dogs, monkeys and the like.
Ellen Oscar — Disease does not discriminate, why do people?
It seems as if China is simultaneously dangerously backward, and yet also dangerously futuristic — whichever feeds the media’s frenzy of the day. There is a double standard against China and the Chinese which places them in a position where they can never win. On some days, it feels as if people read news about China only to confirm what they already know — a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, the Chinese government makes questionable decisions: detention of Uighur Muslims, mass surveillance and media suppression and accusations of modern colonialism, to name a few. All these appalling headlines may make it easy for us to associate only terrible things with China and forget that behind them are humans, who in many cases have no say in the actions of their government. In a time where people succumb so easily to Trump’s scapegoating rhetoric, and given America’s history of a Chinese ban, comments suggesting the coronavirus is “karma” is a dangerous slippery slope to fall down.
True, in certain regions of China, there are practices of eating “unusual” meats such as dogs or bats, but it cannot be propagated as the reason Chinese people get diseases. The truth of the matter is, disease does not discriminate. It can come from chickens, pigs, mosquitoes and more and spreads across ethnic and cultural lines.
What’s more, who’s to decide what is or isn’t a reasonable animal to consume? The French sometimes eat snails, Norwegians sometimes eat whales and Italians sometimes eat maggot-infested cheese, and yet, none of these cultures have been ingrained in our minds as “dirty,” “less than” or “diseased.” Instead, the world praises them for their culinary delights. Popular media coverage has increased sensationalism and blamed unsanitary eating habits and shopping at wet markets — but there is speculation about whether wet markets and “unusual” eating habits are even at fault for this disease. The idea of shopping at a market in France, on the other hand, conjures up romanticized images of straw baskets and overpriced strawberries — what gives?
Following this notion of putting Europe — specifically France — on a pedestal, when it comes to atrocities happening in our fellow Western countries, we react with much greater sympathy. With cases such as the terrorism following “Charlie Hebdo,” half of my Facebook friends changed their profile pictures to “Je Suis Charlie.” When the Notre Dame fire happened with no human casualties, billionaires were quick to raise funds. The greater issue outlined by the coronavirus has been the narratives we construct around who is deserving of human dignity and who isn’t. While it may be hard to resist the comedic genius of jokes such as “the coronavirus won’t last long” because it was “made in China,” reconsider if you might be contributing to existing racism against the East.
The current death toll of the coronavirus has now passed 1,000, including one American death. Given these headlines, I understand the urge to panic — it means our fight or flight response is working. However, I would warn against panic over every single headline without critical consideration of the facts. I was relieved to read emails such as Sara Semal’s “Occidental and coronavirus: What you need to know,” which emphasized a calm approach and highlighted that “for the vast majority of people who have had the illness, symptoms are mild (like a cold or flu) and they resolved after several days.” “Jia you” is a Chinese phrase which literally translates to “add oil” and in English, says something to the effect of “don’t give up” or “hang in there.” Instead of irrational fears of a classmate’s cold or tired, racist jokes, let’s say “Wuhan, jia you!”
Kathy Ou is a sophomore philosophy major. She can be reached at email@example.com. Ellen X. Oscar is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.